Reviews 2015

Child Saviours in English Fantasy Fiction for Children and Young Adults

Child Saviours in English Fantasy Fiction for Children and Young Adults. Anne Klaus. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2014. 295 pages. €34,50 (hard cover).

Anne Klaus’s study provides a detailed and rich analysis of the figure of the child saviour in works of fantasy fiction for children and young adults published between the 19th and 21st centuries. From the beginning, Klaus is clear that her study relies on a "text-based approach" in order to investigate the recurring motifs in a body of fantasy texts and consider their origins in pretexts (16).

The book is divided into three parts: Introduction, Part I: The Child Hero’s Journey, and Part II: Applications to the Real World—Metaphorical Application and Externalisation. Each section is then divided into multiple sub-sections, featuring a detailed perspective of Klaus’s investigation. The introduction provides a well-resourced contextualising of the study, examining various approaches to children’s literature, but specifically highlighting the importance of mythological/archetypal criticism and intertextuality. The purpose of Klaus’s study is to "establish a poetology of the 'child savior' motif in fantasy fiction for children and young adults" (18). Part I, "The Child Hero’s Journey," is divided into sections focusing on "The Initial Setting," "Being Chosen as Saviour," "The Quest," "The Salvation," "Transformation," "Return," and "Summary: Mythical Patterns and Fantasy Fiction for Children and Young Adults." Part II considers "Applications to the Real World—Metaphorical Application and Externalisation." This section is then divided into "Similarities on Plot Level," "Character Qualities," "The Interplay Between Choice, Luck, and Fate," "Good and Evil," and "Summary: The Uses of Fantasy."

The group of texts Klaus explores is a large one: 53 works of children’s and young adult fantasy written in the English language between 1854 and 2005. Klaus chose to begin with the Victorian era as the period in which fantasy fiction specifically targeted towards young readers became popular for the first time. The main selection criterion is the presence of the saviour motif. Whether it is an example from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, or Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness Quartet, Klaus effectively argues for the presence of patterns in fantasy fiction for children and young adults that correlate with structures and motifs in fairy tales, myths, and legends. Klaus reminds readers that fantasy fiction for young readers is doubtless influenced by Homer, Virgil, Biblical texts, and even Norse mythology.

Klaus’s thesis is significant in the realm of scholarly criticism of children’s and young adult literature. There is no lack of textual evidence to support her identifications of motifs and themes in the books she investigates. Readers of this book may not have read all 53 books Klaus discusses, but this will not prevent them from understanding her rigorous analysis. She illuminates the motifs in such a way so that readers can understand their significance even if they have not read the text in question.

In Part I, Klaus discusses the conditions surrounding the protagonists in these fantasy narratives. She highlights issues relating to age, family background, and childhood, providing examples and passages from multiple texts in order to illustrate connections among these stories. In this way, she illuminates similarities across the 53 works. For example, in terms of family background, Klaus points out the prevalence of orphan protagonists in many of these child saviour stories, as well as children who are treated badly by their parents or caregivers. Because of their status as orphans, as Klaus remarks, these children’s journey towards developing identity and confidence is especially difficult.

Continuing with examples from various works by many well-known fantasy authors, such as Garner, Lewis, Wynne-Jones, Paolini, and Lowry, Klaus focuses on the act of "being chosen as Saviour" (45), discussing these protagonists’ search for roots, the discovery of royal heritage, and the "revelation of salvific power" (46). After a lengthy section on "The Quest," ranging from types of quests to mentors to trials and temptations, Klaus continues with "The Salvation." She details four different types of salvation with examples from various texts.

In addition to illuminating examples of patterns reoccurring in fantasy, Klaus draws on the details of pretexts and myths in order to support her argument that all works of literature are intertextually linked, and that these patterns and archetypes continually surface within children’s and young adult literature. I appreciated Klaus’s indication of connections with Biblical texts, which shows that even though children’s and young adult writers may not be religious themselves, their work is nevertheless influenced by the motifs found in Biblical literature.

It was especially encouraging to read in the introduction that Klaus focuses on the "applicability of fantasy fiction to the real world" (20) in the second part of her thesis. In this section she illuminates the notion that works of fantasy highlight "messages which are highly relevant for their target group" (224). In particular, she considers "Similarities on Plot Level," "Character Qualities," "The Interplay Between Choice, Luck, and Fate," and "Good and Evil." She suggests that these works of fantasy illuminate psychological issues that readers face in their own worlds. Whether it is the challenge of growing up, the development of one’s character, or the breaking away from adult figures, issues raised in fantasy novels do engage with the very real world of the young reader.

The book includes a healthy number of footnotes, providing the reader with titles of secondary works relevant to Klaus’s topic. Another particularly helpful section is 2.7 in Part I, “Summary: Mythical Patterns and Fantasy Fiction for Children and Young Adults” (216). Nevertheless, at times the multiplicity of the subheadings is slightly confusing. For example, Part I comes in at 224 pages, and as there are many subsections within it, I wonder if the book could have included more parts and fewer subsections within those parts. Perhaps Klaus could have combined some of the subheadings. Understandably, this is helpful for a thesis, but, in a book, tightening up the subheadings might have been more reasonable.

It is certain that this book features a solid and relevant analysis, supported with textual research focusing on the figure of the child saviour in children’s and young adult fantasy fiction. This will be an important addition to the collections of scholars working in the fantasy genre for young readers even if many of the works discussed are widely known and researched.

Catherine Posey
Shasta Community College and Azusa Pacific University, USA